Monday, March 4, 2013

How to plan your own route for a long-distance hike

I have planned the routes for several long-distance hikes in Europe now, including a 1,000 km hike through Germany, a 2,000 km hike across the UK fromJohn O'Groats to Land's End and a 4,500 km hike across Western Europe. The planning for these long hikes has been very different from preparing for the well established America long-distance trails like the AT or PCT or the European pilgrimage trails. If you plan your own route, there are no ready made map sets or town guides you can buy, no other hikers who have done the exact same route who can share your experiences with you.

Planning the route of a hike yourself is time-consuming and challenging, but can be great fun. The more I do it, the better I get and the more I enjoy it. Here is some advice for people planning similar hikes. This post is geared towards planning hikes in Europe, but you might find interesting tips here even if you are planning your own route in other continents.

Planning a route for long distance hike of 1,000 km and more I go through three phases:

Phase 1: Rough planning

My long hikes usually start with an idea like hiking across Germany or the UK or finding a route across Europe incorporating the big mountain ranges. I always try to use existing marked trails as much as possible instead of creating free style cross country routes. This has several reasons: First of all I like hiking without having to spend too much time navigating. On marked trails I just have to follow the blazes. I only occasionally have to look at a map or my GPS to check where I am. This is far less time and energy consuming than going freestyle where you constantly have to check map, compass and/or GPS. Another advantage is that you can usually buy strip maps or hiking guides for established long-distance trails which ends up to be much cheaper and lighter than buying the relevant topo maps which contain a lot more information than you need - especially if the sheet lines are unfavorable. In the hiking guides or relevant websites for a long-distance trail you will also find a lot of useful logistical and tourist information that facilitates your logistical planning.

In the rough planning phase I therefore try to find a good overview map of the region showing all the long-distance trails. I personally prefer paper maps in this stage, but unfortunately these are not readily available for all European countries. Here are some good examples:
If looking for more information is always a good source

Based on these overviews maps I get a very good idea of the feasibility of a route. Are there enough existing trails that can be connected? Are there many obstacles like long road walks or high mountain ranges in winter? When I have a rough idea of the route I proceed to phase 2, the detailed planning.

Phase 2: Detailed planning

Goal of this phase is to create a gpx track for the whole route. This track will be the guideline for my entire hike and therefore I plan the route down to the last meter. I am aware that I will most likely deviate from this route occasionally out of various reasons like short cutting, sightseeing, resupplying, seeing a nicer route etc. But I want to have the gpx track as a fall back strategy in case I don't have detailed map or I am just too plain lazy to find a better route. I also need a continuous route as a gpx track in order to calculate the length of my hike which is essential for estimating the time needed for the hike and planning resupply.

Again it helps to use existing long distance trails and connect them because they usually have a website of their own and/or you can find free gps track downloads for them on the internet. Good sources are for example:

for Germany:
for France:
for Spain:
for United Kingdom: or
for Benelux:

Unfortunately, I cannot always link existing trails together. Sometimes I have to bridge gaps by planning a freestyle route. With freestyle routes I mean creating my own route using roads, forest roads and all sorts of other trails that are not marked and/or part of long-distance trail. I use Garmin topo maps or OSM maps as a planning base. This freestyle route walking is much easier in Europe than in the US because in Europe you are almost always allowed to walk on any trail or forest road even if it is on private property.

Still planning freestyle routes can be tricky: What looks like a perfect trail or forest road on Garmin topo or OSM can in reality be non-existent, overgrown, flooded, eroded or otherwise impassable. Never rely on a single unmarked trail that is shown on a map. Have alternatives handy in case that this trail does not exist or is impassable.

The accurateness of the calculation of the trip length in kilometers and time will depend on the quality of the downloaded gpx tracks. If these tracks have plenty of track points like one track point every 15 to 20 meters, the overall length of the track will be reliable. But very often these gpx tracks have been cut down to reduce the amount of track points. These becomes a big problem especially in mountainous regions. Your gpx track might have only two track points with a straight line of a couple of hundred meters between them. In reality there might be a trail with several switchbacks and a couple of kilometers between those two track points! This can add up quickly and distort the real length of a trail tremendously. And all of a sudden you'll need one day more to get to your next resupply point.... Always check the quality of the gpx tracks you have downloaded. The less trackpoints per kilometer is has the more buffer you should add to the length of your route. If in doubt I usually add 10-15% to the track length.

In this phase I also plan alternate routes. These come in very useful in two cases:

I try to plan shorter alternate route for the end of my hike in case I unexpectedly run out of time but still want to make it to the finish point. I also plan alternates for long stretches that can be difficult in bad weather like exposed mountain ridges. The better your map material is the less need you have to plan alternates because you can plan them “on the spot” whenever the need for an alternate arises. But very often I won't carry detailed maps for an area or only strip maps that don't show enough of the surrounding area to plan an alternate. Having a pre-planned alternate can be essential then.

On tour I don't want to solely rely on my GPS for navigation. Already twice may GPS broke on trail and I would have been lost without paper maps. I therefore try to carry paper maps for my route or buy them along the way. Again, using existing long-distance trails makes this easier because very often strip maps and/or guidebooks are available for them. In Spain look for guidebooks (topoguias) of Prames and in France for the “topoguides” of the FFRP. Of course I cannot carry maps for a several thousand kilometer hike. I therefore try to buy the maps/guidebooks as I go, but it has proven to be very useful to determine beforehand which map/guidebook I need.

If I cannot find strip maps/guidebooks or if I hike a long freestyle stretch I print out the relevant maps using the map material of my Garmin topos or OSM maps. Sometimes there are better free or cheap alternatives like
I very rarely buy normal paper maps when hiking long distance because these maps are too expensive and too heavy for my purposes especially when the sheet lines are unfavorable.

Phase 3: Logistical planning

Goal of this phase is to create a document containing all the logistical information needed for my hike. I'll carry this document in paper and as a file on my smartphone. Keep in mind that you'll need to have your route fully planned in order to sensibly plan the logistics. This little guidebook contains the following information:

Resupply: I can carry food for up to 8 or 9 days, but in Europe you almost always find resupply options more often, especially if you are willing to deviate from the hiking trail. Still, I don't want to find the next supermarket by coincidence with an empty stomach – I therefore research ahead where there are resupply options along my route. In bigger cities there will definitely be supermarkets, but it still helps to avoid long detours on pavement if you know exactly where they are. It is much more difficult to research resupply options in little villages or towns. Here are some tipps:

Research with google maps is quick and easy, but has a lot of disadvantages. First of all not all supermarkets are listed there. This especially applies to little mom-and-pop-stores. Also not all supermarkets that show up on google maps do exist any longer. Very often the data have been entered, but not updated. The only way to make sure that the store is still there is to double check with other data sources like a supermarket chain's own website or just calling by phone. This is a lot of work but definitely worthwhile if you are relying on one store with no other back up options nearby.

In Mediterranean countries shops are closed midday for lunch break. These lunch breaks are several hours long and can be anything from noon to 5 pm. If you don't want to wait in front of a closed shop with an empty stomach it helps to research opening times beforehand or at least note the phone number so that you can call ahead and find out.

In google maps you can save the location of a store under “my places”. You'll have to convert the waypoint then and can transfer it onto your GPS. Some supermarket chains like “Lidl” offer a download of all their locations as waypoints facilitating resupply research tremendously.

Consumables: These are mostly shoes, fuel and maps/guidebooks. For shoes, gas canisters and maps I try to locate outfitters along the route and note down their location, opening times and phone numbers. I use gas canisters and their resupply is essential for me. I therefore always call ahead to find out if they carry canisters and the shoes I need. For Campingaz canisters the Campingaz website offers a great international store locator. For maps and guidebooks you don't need an outfitter – any book shop will usually do. Again it is important to note down their phone numbers. Call ahead several days in advance to find out if your map or guidebook is available and let them reserve it. If they don't stock it, it can usually be ordered within a couple of days and then picked up in the store.

General delivery or poste restante: Although I try to avoid sending stuff via Poste Restante there are some cases when this becomes necessary. In some countries I cannot buy the trail runners I need and have to have them shipped to a post office along the route. If I already own the maps/guidebooks I need for an upcoming stretch but don't want to carry them hundreds of kilometers before I use them I ship them via Poste Restante. Keep in mind that regulations for Poste Restante vary tremendously from country to country. Always make sure what they are. Some countries only accept small packages up to 2 kg as Poste restante. Sometimes your delivery will be kept 2 weeks, sometimes 1 month. Delivery times can be unreliable and there always is the risk of loss. Always try to send a resupply package to a town where you are planning on having a rest day anyways. Then you don't have to worry about arriving on a Sunday.

Tourist information: If there are attractions along my route that I definitely want to visit I research opening times beforehand. I don't want to arrive on the only day when the sight is closed. If I know where I want to have rest day I try to research cheap accommodation like hostels and note down their phone number. This way I can call ahead and make reservations.

It depends on your personal preference to what extent you research logistical information. You can of course do most of this research on the go, especially if you are carrying a smart phone. Still I personally prefer doing most of this research at home where it is much easier with a fast internet connection, a keyboard and a mouse than with a tiny smartphone display and a touchpad. On tour I very often encounter no or very weak cell phone reception resulting in no or very slow internet. Also surfing the internet drains the batteries very fast.